More than techno: A history of electronic music – DW (English)

More than techno: A history of electronic music – DW (English)

Electronic or “electro” music is often labeled robotic and one-dimensional, a sound that might only be consumed under the influence in a dark nightclub. This cliché extends to the idea that the genre originated in the 1980s when synthesizers and drum machines became integral to pop music.

But electronic music has had a long and diverse influence on the modern musical canon, a topic explored by the exhibition “Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno.”

Now on show at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf — a city that incubated electronic music pioneers such as Krautrock band Kraftwerk — the exhibition maps the more than 100-year history of electronic music from its beginnings to compositions by artificial intelligence.

From the Theremin to the Hammond

The first experiments with electronic sound generators took place as early as the mid-late 19th century, and culminated in the development of electromechanical pianos that predate the electronic keyboard. 

One of the most famous early electronic instruments was the “etherophone,” later christened the “Theremin” after its inventor Leon Theremin.

Leon Theremin demonstrating his theremin, considered the world’s first electronic musical instrument

Developed in the 1920s in Leningrad, the sound seem to emerge as if by magic: Invisible electrical oscillations created between two antennas can be played with a hand as it bends the pitch.

Soon after, Friedrich Trautwein created the “trautonium,” a precursor to the electronic synthesizer — played here with a wire instead of keys — that has also been essential to electronic music.

So too the electromechanical Hammond organ developed in 1935 as an alternative to a church organ became an essential part of blues, jazz and funk music.

From Krautrock to dub

In the postwar period, US composers such as John Cage and Steve Reich were pushing the boundaries of electroacoustic music.

Meanwhile in Europe, Karlheinz Stockhausen was pioneering electronic sound experiments using ring modulators and Hammond organs, among much else, in the Studio for Electronic Music in Cologne.

A pioneer of electronic and ‘intuitive music’: Karlheinz Stockhausen in 1971

In the 1970s, the electronic musical torch was passed on to Düsseldorf, where the band Kraftwerk, in their Kling-Klang studio, developed the sound that has decisively shaped electronic music to this day.

While avant-garde rock and Krautrock bands such as Can or Neu! infused keyboards into their monotonous “motorik” sound, it was Kraftwerk that gave the genre worldwide popularity — and credibility.

Artists as diverse as David Bowie, Afrika Bambaata, Joy Division, New Order, Depeche Mode and Blur were inspired by the German electro band, whom the New York Times once described as “the Beatles of electronic dance music.”

“Think of the band as a lab technician synthesizing the DNA that provided the code for rap, disco, electro-funk, new wave, industrial and techno,” wrote the newspaper.

French artists were also central to the electronic music renaissance. Jean-Michel Jarre brought the synthesizer to the mainstream with groundbreaking albums like “Oxygène” before Parisian artists like Laurent Garnier, Air and Daft Punk popularized the French House genre.

Meanwhile in Jamaica, groundbreaking producers and musicians like Lee “Scratch” Perry experimented with electronic effects on instrumental versions of reggae songs, inventing dub music in the process.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    Music visionary

    His vast musical spectrum ranged from jazz, rock, pop, electronic and folk to experimental and avant-garde rock. Conny Plank was one of the most innovative and revered music producers in pop history – long before the producer “stars” of the 1990s and 2000s. In view of his premature death in 1987 at the age of 47, one wonders what other new sounds he might have inspired.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    Duke Ellington & His Orchestra

    Having already worked with jazz luminaries such as Alexander von Schlippenbach, Plank teamed up with the world-renowned jazz musician and his orchestra in Cologne in 1970 to record a discordant, experimental studio session. Featuring three takes of two different tunes, Plank was able to lure old master Ellington out of his comfort zone. The session was finally released as an album in 2015.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    Considered one of the world’s most influential bands, Kraftwerk, the electro pioneers from Düsseldorf, were already working with Plank when they were still known as Organisation and released the LP “Tone Float.” In the following years, Plank helped Kraftwerk develop their unique sound, culminating with the landmark ‘Autobahn’ album in 1974.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    When Klaus Dinger and Michael Rother left Kraftwerk to form Neu! with “hidden member” Conny Plank, they created the famous Motorik beat, a continuous, pulsating 4/4 rhythm that became the trademark of Krautrock – as the experimental West German sound was dubbed in England. “Hallogallo,” the pounding 10-minute opening track of Neu!’s self-titled first album, came to define the Motorik sound.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    Plank worked with many of the acts under the Krautrock moniker, although the term was barely used in Germany. Can, an experimental rock band from Cologne, became one of the best-known exponents of the genre, though Plank only mixed the band’s 1978 record, “Out of Reach.” But the midwife of avant-garde rock also produced key Krautrockers like Guru Guru, Cluster, Kraan and La Düsseldorf.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    Plank put his signature on the early work of the Hanover hard rockers and the best-selling German band of all time. Under Plank’s guiding hand, Scorpions’ 1972 debut album “Lonesome Crow” featured a dark, psychedelic sound. The seminal collaboration is discussed by Scorpions’ Rudolf Schenker (top left) in the 2017 film “Conny Plank: The Potential of Noise,” made by Plank’s son Stephan.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    The British New Wave trailblazers recorded “Systems Of Romance” with Conny Plank at the mixers. The band’s third and probably most electronic album ushered in a long, fruitful collaboration between the Londoners and the German producer. Also produced by Plank: Ultravox’s biggest hit, the single “Vienna,” giving him major international status.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    D.A.F. – Deutsch-Amerikanische Freundschaft

    Plank later produced the Düsseldorf-based electropunk band featuring Gabi Delgado-López (front) and Robert Görl (rear). Combining punk, pop and electronic music, D.A.F. were luminaries of the Neue Deutsche Welle movement – which also featured bands like Nena before veering into techno. Görl once praised the way Plank “left musicians to their own devices” before adding an essential “boost.”

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank


    Dave Stewart and Annie Lennox produced their debut album “In The Garden” alongside Plank. An impressive team of collaborators came to his studio in Wolperath to work on the record, including blondie drummer Clem Burke, Robert Görl from D.A.F. and Can’s Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebezeit. The album was not commercially successful but helped the duo find their sound before they became global stars.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    Rejected: David Bowie

    Also strongly influenced by Krautrock bands, the Thin White Duke tried to convince Plank to produce an album with him in the late 1970s. While living in Berlin and creating his legendary trilogy of records, Bowie travelled to Wolperath to meet Plank and took a seat in his legendary kitchen. But Plank refused. No one knows why, but one wonders what might have been.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    Brian Eno

    Bowie’s collaborator and producer Brian Eno had more luck with Plank. Recording numerous albums with him in the 70s and 80s, he returned to Wolperath regularly. In addition to his success with bands like Roxy Music and as a solo artist, Eno became a sought-after producer with the likes of Grace Jones, Coldplay and U2.

  • Pioneer of Krautrock and sound inventor: Conny Plank

    Also rebuffed: U2

    Despite mediation from Brian Eno, Plank decided he couldn’t work with U2 frontman Bono (pictured) due to his ego. “I can’t work with this singer,” said Plank before turning down one of the biggest bands in the world. Perhaps he feared not finding what he once called “that utterly naïve moment of ‘innocence'” that inspired him “to hit the button at just the right time to capture it.”

    Author: Philipp Jedicke (sb)

In the US, Detroit and Chicago each develop their own varieties of techno and house music, which have a major influence on the burgeoning electronic dance music (EDM) culture in Europe — and especially the techno capital, Berlin, where the Love Parade became the biggest EDM party on earth.

Popular hits and trip-hop beats

Countless EDM subgenres — including acid house, drum’n’bass, dubstep, trance and two-step — define a burgeoning new worldwide rave culture in the 1990s.

Meanwhile, downtempo dub beats and experimental soundscapes define the new trip hop sound coming out of Bristol via bands like Massive Attack and Portishead — and from Austrian duo Kruder & Dorfmeister.

Around the turn of the millennium, British bands such as The Prodigy, Chemical Brothers and Radiohead combined electronics and rock, while Icelander Björk and US artist Trent Reznor infused indie and rock elements with electro beats, computer sounds and synthesizers.

And in the reunified German capital Berlin, Atari Teenage Riot and Canadian singer and composer Peaches built bridges between performance art, punk and techno.

Icons of electronic music: Grammy award-winning duo Daft Punk

Ever-evolving musical genre

Back to Düsseldorf, where bands like Kraftwerk and Neu! made the city synonymous with early electronic music worldwide, “Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno” is now paying tribute to the rise of a groundbreaking musical phenomenon.  

The more than 500 exhibits at the Düsseldorf Kunstpalast include instruments, homemade sound generators, photographs, audio recordings, videos and graphic design.

The exhibition was first held at the Musée de la Musique in Paris. It was also created in close collaboration with Kraftwerk co-founder Ralf Hütter.

“Electro. From Kraftwerk to Techno” runs at the Kunstpalast in Düsseldorf through May 15, 2022.


This article was translated from the German.